Our energy future: 'They'll think of something'
Concerns over future supplies of oil and gas are often met with a 'They'll-think-of-something' mentality, Cobb writes. But the only sensible response to the looming possibility of depleted resources is to begin reducing our energy use now in earnest.
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I ultimately see a limited role for biofuels to provide liquid fuels for emergency vehicles, rural transport and farm machinery. But, they will not actually be renewable until we stop engaging in agriculture which erodes and degrades rather than builds the soil. For now we must accept that biofuels are actually part of a mining operation--only in this case what is being mined is the fertility of the soils and the fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize, weed and protect biofuel crops from pests.Skip to next paragraph
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.
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Ocean thermal, tidal power and wave energy will certainly be niche players. Hydroelectric power has some new potential in developing countries where all the major rivers have yet to be dammed. Small hydroelectric still has possibilities in developed countries. But, most major rivers there have already been dammed. Keep in mind that dams eventually silt up (unless they are dredged) and cease to be sources of energy for society.
So, here's the score so far. Researchers seeking to extract fossil fuels and uranium from the Earth's crust are in a race with ever more stringent geological constraints, a race they will ultimately lose. If that were not the case, we would not already be seeing declines in oil production in country after country in the last 40 years. And, we can expect that this will happen for the world at some point, not only for oil, but for natural gas, coal and uranium as well.
But, as a practical matter, the physical limits of sunlight will NEVER, EVER be reached. What's more, sunlight is not becoming more difficult to access. We have the same access to it today, tomorrow and for the next 5 billion years.
There are some limits to solar and wind power, however, that have nothing to do with their fuel source, sunlight. To scale solar and wind energy production large enough to produce the amount of energy we use today as a global society would take so long--even at vastly increased rates of deployment--that we will almost certainly fail to do so before fossil fuels begin their inevitable and perhaps swift decline.
The other task is to transform an infrastructure dependent on liquid fuels for transportation into one which uses primarily electricity. We are slowly beginning the transition to electric vehicles. But it is at a very slow rate compared to the rate we need. And, private automobiles are almost certainly not the answer for the future. Electric trains, trolleys and buses are a better alternative.
Then, there is the problem of electricity storage. We know how to store electricity, but it is very costly. We need new low-cost solutions, and many researchers are trying to find them.
All these limits on renewable energy explain in part why we have not embraced it as fully as we need to, and why we still prefer fossil fuels and uranium for the lion's share of our energy needs.
But it won't matter what we prefer when the rate of production of nonrenewable energy sources starts to decline. If we are not ready, we will be in a world of hurt.
The only sensible response to this looming possibility is to begin reducing our energy use now in earnest. If we do that, we have a much better chance of making a successful transition to a renewable energy economy--a transition which will happen whether we like it or not.
We actually know right now how to make dramatic reductions in energy use while only affecting our daily activities minimally. But, it will cost money up front (which we'll get back in the form of energy savings). And, it will require enormous political will because some of the changes will have to take place in our transportation and utility infrastructures, both of which are now largely committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Reductions in energy use and the rapid transformation of our infrastructure are not typically what people think about when they say, "They'll think of something. They always do."
We have indeed thought of something. But that something is going to require the active participation of everyone. It isn't going to be done TO us. It will have to be done BY us.
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